Lights come up, dimly, on a dingy brown old couch with a deep sag in the middle. Close by: a laptop, a TV-tray-like table with rollers, a low slung reading lamp, and a small bookcase behind. And behind that, a small kitchen and doorway.
The stage directions for Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale have the lights come up on Charlie, the central character, sitting on the couch. For Cygnet Theatre, director Shana Wride, found a more eloquent “reveal.”
We don’t see Charlie. Instead we hear the thump-drag, thump-drag of someone off-stage using a walker. Then a shadowy, Bigfoot-sized male fills the doorway. His moves are so labored, he must weigh 600 pounds. Instead of first seeing Charlie at his workspace — actively conducting a writing class on the Internet — we see him in “action,” struggling to advance as if straight up a mountain.
Charlie’s blood pressure is 238 over 134. He began eating himself to death the day the Mormon Church did or said something to his partner Alan 15 years ago — Charlie isn’t sure what. Alan stopped eating and died. Now with congestive heart failure, Charlie has one week to live.
He’s going, and that’s fine with him. But he has two final needs: find out why the Mormon Church “killed” Alan; and get at least one thing right before he dies.
Knowing when he will die frees Charlie from restrictions. As his body deteriorates, his mind wakes up. He urges students to quit stressing grammar, punctuation, or split infinitives and “just give me something honest.” He realizes he’s been teaching them to “edit” their reactions.
And he will try to be honest with Ellie, his estranged daughter for 15 years, who writes “hate blogs” and seems impervious to hope.
At one point Alan’s sister Liz, the self-appointed caregiver, threatens to stab Charlie with a knife. Can’t happen, he says, “my internal organs are two feet in, at least.”
The joke serves as a metaphor: Charlie isn’t the only one encased in a defensive barrier. Ellie’s blank negativity shields her from human contact; as do Liz’s control urges, ex-wife Mary’s rampant anger, and teenaged Elder Thomas’ disguise as a Mormon missionary. All are variations on the way people can self-edit, alienate, and even destroy themselves.
The 110-minute script, with no intermission, is as no frills as the writing Charlie encourages. It also calls for performances that are more un-leashed than “acted.”
Cygnet Theatre’s opening night, after a slow start, began to un-leash about 20 minutes in. The evening was still a bit of a seat-squirmer — The Whale is both original and often predictable and melodramatic — but the performers gelled.
Although the men are better written than the women (the latter mostly shout and react), Judy Bauerlein (Liz), Melissa Fernandes (Mary), and impressive young Erin McIntosh (as flame-throwing Ellie) found nuances where they could. Craig Jorczak’s Elder Thomas began with such believable innocence it was a surprise when we learned he isn’t.
Andrew Oswald (wearing a gigantic outfit) matched his initial entrance with a strong performance throughout. Oswald made clear that Charlie’s past the point of no return. But he was almost too nice, too deliberately endearing — and could play up Charlie’s conflict between holding on and letting go. In the end, though the final tableau is stagey, Oswald succeeded.
Sean Fanning’s scenic design turned the Moscow, Idaho, apartment into a clash between Charlie’s sloth and Liz’s compulsion for order. Melanie Chen’s sounds included piano riffs and a symbol-heavy crashing of waves. These underscored references to Ahab and Moby-Dick and Jonah and the Whale and, in the end, to the tragic loss of a sensibility as tormented as it was deeply gifted.